[Editor’s note: This was originally published during the 2008 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival ]
Bill Plympton’s animated shorts were the first “adult” cartoons I’d ever seen as a kid and they were as shocking as they were funny. Idiots and Angels, the latest in the Plymp-toon family, is no exception. The cartoon-noir is about an “asshole guy” who wakes up one morning with angel wings growing out of his back. The wings subvert his routine bullying, turning him into a do-gooder against his will. It’s a quirky masterpiece, full of sexual longing and twisted fantasy, underscored by groaning Tom Waits music.
Plympton is probably best known to this day for his very first short film, the wildly funny, Oscar nominated, Your Face. Since then, Plympton has become the Jim Jarmusch of animation; a long time indy filmmaker who has maintained a successful career, without ever working for the likes of Disney. Over 20 years into his career he still hand draws each cell. Rough and visceral, Plympton’s cartoons display the pleasure and challenge of every line he draws.
Laura Newman: You’ve been to so many festivals. What’s your experience and what do you love about festivals. How does Tribeca stand out for you?
Bill Plympton: When you make a film, it’s like a monk’s existence. You’re really on your drawing board 10 hours, 12 hours a day drawing, totally involved in this film project. Your social life is zero. Then it’s finished and you go to all these great festivals and it’s the total opposite; you’re a big star, they pick you up in limousines, great dinners, great parties. You see the world for free. So, it’s really in the back of my mind as I’m drawing, “Oh boy! I get to go to these festivals.” I get a little reward at the end of the tunnel. Tribeca, I think, is a real up and coming festival and I’m talking in terms of distribution. Of course, Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, these are big distribution festivals and I think Tribeca is starting to become a serious player in the market. If you’ve been to Sundance you know it’s a wonderful town, great films, great director, Geoff Gilmore, but it’s so damn hard to get around and do meetings that it really is a cumbersome operation to try and make any business. So I think NYC is much better situated for the distribution deal. First of all, because a lot of the companies are based here anyway. They have their people here, they don’t have to fly them all out, pay for thousands of dollars for some sort of condo. They all live here; it’s easy to meet with them, it’s easy to find a bar, find a table at a restaurant, get around on subway. I think it facilitates the business side of the industry so much better than Sundance, Toronto and Cannes. The city is made for business.
Newman: Walk us through the process of distribution. What are you hoping will happen with Idiots and Angels?
Plympton: We have a game plan. My agent and I are targeting certain distributors we think would like the film. There are about 12-15 we think might be interested enough, so we’re having a party and inviting the distributors there to meet me and hopefully mention some figures. Then we have the four screenings at Tribeca and a press screening so there are a lot of chances for these people to meet me and talk to me and hopefully I can convince them that they’ll make a lot of money on the film.
Newman: How have you managed to stay so independent all this time?
Plympton: That was sort of a surprise to me. I started out as an illustrator and caricature artist and I’ve always had this yearning to be an animator ever since I was 3 or 4 years old when I saw animation on TV. When I moved to NYC, animation was dead; there was no real market. Frankly I didn’t know how to make an animated film. I was pretty ignorant about it. So, I became an illustrator. Then in 1985 I did this little animated film called Your Face, a 3-minute film that’s really a dorky little film. It’s wacky, very bizarre and for some reason it connected with the audience; they really liked it. We went to this film festival. It was the first one I could remember, called Annecy. They screened the film in front of like thousands of people, mostly French, and people loved it. They laughed and applauded and they were joking and everything. Much to my surprise, a few people came up to me afterward and said, “Gee, we think your film is kind of nice. Would you take $2000 for Spain?” or, “Would you take $5000 for US theatrical?” I was shocked. “You want to pay me money for my film?” So, I just sort of discovered that there is money in animation and this was 1985 and animation was starting to come back then. The Simpson’s would soon start and Japanese animation was getting hot. MTV was buying a lot of animation. So, I quit my illustrations and went head first into animation. I was making money as an animator and I thought that was normal; everybody does that. But I’ve come to realize that nobody makes money doing short films.
So my 3 rules, I call them Plympton’s dogma is: Rule #1 make your film short. Rule #2 make your film cheap, about $1000/minute. Rule #3 make it funny. If you can answer all those qualifications, I believe your film will make money and that’s how I’ve been able to sustain myself all these years. I have done some commercials and music videos and commissioned pieces but quite frankly, I made more money on the shorts and the features
Newman: In some ways Idiots and Angels breaks those rules because it’s longer and it’s quite dark. There’s lots of humor in it but it’s the darkest I’ve seen of your films.
Plympton: It’s quite mysterious. I wasn’t really trying to tell funny jokes. But for some reason people laugh. It is kind of a comedy even though I didn’t try to make one. I just wanted to make a serious comment on a guy who’s got some personality problems.
Newman: So why did you go against your own dogma?
Plympton: I did another film earlier called Hair High which I thought was a great film. I still think it’s one of my best films and we had a big cast; David Carradine, Martha Plympton, Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Silverman, a lot of money spent on actors. We did painted cells and really full animation, lot of colors, lot of bright stuff and the film didn’t go anywhere; it really bombed and I was shocked cause I thought it was a great story and had everything going for it. So I said screw that, I’m going to do a small personal film, 4 characters tops, dark, very little color, very low quantity of work would be involved. It was an attempt to go back to my original art style like Your Face, which is pencil on paper. It’s about one quarter of the cost of Hair High, very cheep, no dialogue, just sound effects and music. It’s a very back to basics kind of film. For some reason people are responding to it. I’m really shocked it’s doing as well as it is.
Newman: What was the impetuous for the idea for the film?
Plympton: The first time I remember hearing about the film was in France during some festival. An intern and I were walking and he said, “So, what’s your next project?” …top of my head, “Oh, there’s this asshole guy who wakes up one morning with wings on his back.” And he said, “Yeah, I like that idea!” That night I was in my hotel room thinking it was a good idea and I started drawing little ideas and character sketches and possible plot devises. It was a real impromptu origin; I don’t know where the idea came from. It could be I saw something a long time ago and it was hidden in the back of my brain.
Newman: It makes me think about what animation provides because you can go into dreams or make animals talk and people fly. What is the appeal of animation to you? What do you get out of it that you might not directing actors?
Plympton: It’s fun for me, I get to draw as much as I want, there are no rules. That’s why this film was so great. I would get up in the morning and draw whatever felt like fun. If someone didn’t like it, screw ‘em. It’s fun for me to draw these people and their sordid lives. If I made a mistake, I would erase it and redraw it and the more I erased it and worked it over, the darker it got and the more interesting it got. So, it actually encouraged me to make more mistakes because it got real raw and edgy and textured.
Idiots and Angels opens tomorrow at IFC Center New York, NY – Opening October 6th. It opens at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Los Angeles, CA on October 29th.